The man who transformed the cars people buy, drive or see on the roads of an entire region wore dark slacks and a red Tommy Bahama shirt. Billy Fuccillo beckoned.
The man who transformed the cars people buy, drive or see on the roads of an entire region wore dark slacks and a red Tommy Bahama shirt.
Billy Fuccillo beckoned.
“Come and check out mine,” Fuccillo said of his white Kia Soul, similar to the 96 new ones available on his lot. His car featured an upgraded, 201 horsepower engine, leather seats, a navigation system and a panoramic sunroof.
“Of all the manufacturers I’ve represented in more than 30 years, the Soul is the only car that appeals to 18- and 19-year-olds and 78- and 80-year olds,” Fuccillo said. “People who are 52 like the Soul. People who are 32. People who are 18. People who are 80.”
Prior to Fuccillo Kia opening in December, 2010 at 404 NE Pine Island Road, in Cape Coral, no Kia-branded cars made the top 10 list of new, registered cars in the combined areas of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.
Every year since 2011, at least three and sometimes four – the Soul, Optima, Forte and sometimes the Sorento – have made the top 10 for new cars registered in those six counties, according to data gathered by IHS Markit, a Michigan-based marketing firm.
Between opening more than six years ago and mid-July, Fuccillo Kia has sold 36,850 new cars. Of those, 24 percent, or 8,965, have been Souls. Kia corporate verified Fuccillo’s claim that the Cape Coral dealership is in fact the world’s largest Kia dealer in terms of volume.
Consider: Kia Soul ranked 29th of the nation’s top 398 new cars sold in 2016. The Kia Optima ranked 36th. But in Southwest Florida, those cars ranked sixth and fifth, respectively, according to IHS Markit.
Gender-wise, 53 percent of the region's Soul drivers are female, and 47 percent are male, according to IHS Markit.
“Younger people like the car because it’s cute,” said Greg Hood, general manager of Galeana Kia, which also sells the Soul. “Older people like the car because it’s practical.”
Greg McCarter, 52 and from Cape Coral, stands 6 feet and weighs 450 pounds. He and his wife, Calondra, rented a Soul for a 2015 cross-country trip to California instead of their Toyota Sequoia, which gets 17 miles per gallon on the highway to the Soul’s 30-31.
“I didn’t think I was going to fit in it, because I’m a really big guy,” McCarter said of the Soul. “But once I got in it … I’ve got all kinds of pictures of every state that I was in with that Kia.”
This year, McCarter bought a 2017 Soul from Fuccillo for $20,000.
The Kia Soul demographics also include the 6-foot-3 Fuccillo, 61, who declares ad nauseam in numerous television and radio commercials and flyers that his cars are: “HUUUUU-JA!”
The marketing major, psychology minor and former tight end for the Syracuse University football team, drives his Soul when visiting Cape Coral from his Tampa home. He owns five Florida dealerships with a sixth in the planning stages for Clermont. He also owns 24 dealerships in upstate New York, where he sells more than a dozen brands of cars, including the Kia.
“You have an exceptional dealer in one area who does an exceptional job with one brand,” said Tom Libby, an automobile analyst for IHS Market. “That can raise the volume for a model or brand. It might be a part of the country that gravitates to a certain concept. Four-wheel drive vehicles traditionally do very well in mountain areas, for example.
“In the case of the Kia Soul, it’s most likely related to an exceptional dealer performance. Now I will say that the Kia Soul does well across the country, but it’s not in the top 10.”
In the fall of 2010, Fuccillo and Percy Vaughn, now the executive director of the southern region for Kia corporate, had dinner in Orlando. They discussed Fuccillo entering the sales market for the Korean brand in Southwest Florida, having had success in upstate New York.
At the time, Cape Coral was at the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis. The economy was in shambles. Kia and Fuccillo took a gamble during a critical time at a location that had been an out-of-business Saturn dealership.
“He’s one of the most unique guys in the entire automotive industry,” Vaughn said. “He said, ‘I think I can make a big splash in this market.’ He came in and never looked back.
“With Billy, when he does these promotions, people come from as far away as Miami or Tampa. They would drive down to buy a car from him, even though we had other dealerships in those areas.”
In May of 2012, less than two years after opening, Fuccillo had a concert on the Cape Coral lot. He hired the classic rock band, Styx, which had top 40 hits such as "Come Sail Away." The event drew thousands of fans. Fuccillo said he sold dozens of cars.
Billy Fuccillo said at the start of each year, he sets a marketing budget, usually about $350,000 to $850,000 a month.
“He’s very aggressive,” Libby said. “He’s motivated. He’s very shrewd. That concert you mentioned probably drew an audience that was a good fit for the Soul.”
In 1996, Fuccillo had Robbie Knievel, son of daredevil Evil Knievel, jump his motorcycle over 19 cars outside his Adams, New York, dealership. Fuccillo said he sold a record 523 cars in one day.
“When I got out of college, I went to a Chevy dealer in Buffalo, looking for a job in sales,” Fuccillo said of 1978. He was turned down three times.
“The fourth time I went back, they finally hired me.”
Big man, big personality
Fuccillo worked his way into buying dealerships. He once bought a Hyundai store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he went by the handle “Billy Fernandez” and did his “H-U-G-E!” catchphrase. He said he bought the bankrupt store for $25,000 and sold it two years later to Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller for $7 million.
Xavier Villarreal, a Fort Myers High School graduate and Hall of Fame football player there, worked in sales and then as a manager at Sam Galloway Ford in Fort Myers. In late 2010, he applied to be the general manager of Fuccillo Kia.
Fuccillo told Villarreal he wanted him to train in Rochester, New York, and to pack his bags.
Villarreal said he hadn’t had time to book a flight yet.
“Who do you think I am?” Fuccillo told Villarreal. “I’ve got my Lear jet waiting for you at the airport.”
“Thirty minutes later, I’m 10,000 feet in the air, taking off and heading to New York,” Villarreal said. “I spent four weeks there. I never saw all of this coming. I know a lot of people in the community. I know what this community is about. But I never foresaw it being on the scale that it became on a day-to-day basis.
“He has a heart of gold. I know sometimes people wish he could do more. There’s always somebody in need. But with what he does for our customers – 70 to 80 percent of our customers come back and buy another car from us.”
The Kia brand already existed in the region prior to Fuccillo’s arrival. Galeana Kia, at 14483 S. Tamiami Trail in Fort Myers and Airport Kia at 3325 Westview Drive, Naples, each opened in 1996.
Both dealerships compete for sales against Billy Fuccillo but appreciate him as well.
“I love him,” said Greg Hood, general manager of Galeana Kia for the past two years. “When I was offered this job, my boss said, ‘The No. 1 Kia dealer in the world is about 8.5 miles from you.’ When I came to the store, I knew that Kia products were so well-branded in our market that I couldn’t fail. Billy Fuccillo came to town and raised awareness. He spent an enormous amount of money. We’ve also been a beneficiary of that.
“He has a tried-and-proven formula. He floods the market, and they respond to it. The difference between him and me is, first of all, it’s not my money.”
Hood said at first, Fuccillo outsold Galeana Kia at a 10-to-1 clip. That has been narrowed, he said, to about 2.5-to-1.
But Galeana Kia doesn’t have to beat Fuccillo Kia to be successful, Hood said.
“His method was to focus on new car sales,” Hood said. “He didn’t care as much about used cars. We don’t do it that way. Our desire is to sell both, because they’re both good markets.”
Lots of Soul
The Soul base model starts at $16,100 with a manual transmission and $18,795 with an automatic, although the dealership has various incentive programs that could drop those prices. The new, fully loaded, “Exclaim” model Fuccillo drives goes for about $26,500, minus incentives.
“I love the car,” said Francesca Simonelli, 46, a Cape Coral yoga instructor. She has bought two Souls from Fuccillo, a green one in 2012 and then a gray one last summer. “I love the look of it. It’s all very practical for me.
“My credit was shot. I had filed for bankruptcy. I knew if anybody was going to get me a car, it was going to be that guy. He’s in it for the money, obviously. He was going to make it work. It was like a dream come true.”
Lisa Terrill, 44, and the manager of the Bayfront Bistro restaurant on Fort Myers Beach, bought her green Soul from Fuccillo four years ago. Her Volkswagen Passat had been totaled in an accident, hence the need for a new car. Her Soul from Fuccillo included a trip to Miami Beach with a one-night stay in a resort and a party, another of the dealership’s many promotions.
“At first, I was kind of annoyed by all the commercials,” Terrill said. “But when it came down to it, they had a good reputation or so many wouldn’t be purchasing it from them.
“I will tell you this, I would take that car a million times on a road trip. It’s a smooth ride. It’s very roomy on the inside. It’s like a SUV, really, but with great gas mileage.”
McCarter, Simonelli and Terrill all said they had poor credit at the time of their purchases. Billy Fuccillo Kia found them loans ranging from 72 to 75 months at interest rates between 4.9 and 6 percent.
The business of buying and selling cars worked out for all parties.
Working the room
When Billy Fuccillo visits his Cape Coral dealership, he does not keep a low profile. He works the showroom, posing for pictures with potential buyers. He hams it up with the sales staff.
In his office, Fuccillo, a New York Yankees fan, has some sports memorabilia and posters and a framed photograph of Robbie Knievel’s motorcycle jump.
Fuccillo defended his dealership’s practice of selling cars to customers with low credit scores. He’s aware of a negative article about that practice that has been floating around on Facebook.
“How are you going to get people financed?” Fuccillo said. “I think we did a lot of things to get the community turned around, and they in turn, helped us. Sell cars, that’s what we’re here to do.
“We don’t know what transpires in their life. We work real hard to get them financed. So many people are living week-to-week. We find them the best rates we can.”
Fuccillo finished a photo shoot and then an on-camera interview. At the end, he was asked to do his famous catchphrase.
“Catchphrase? What catchphrase?” Fuccillo said, before looking into the camera and getting back into character. “Southwest Florida, it’s gonna be HUUUUU-JA!”